Last week, I scored two different proposals for replacing the No Child Left Behind education law. The Obama administration’s blueprint received a score of 15/25, while the leading conservative proposal scored 11/25. Neither is particularly inspiring, and progressives should reasonably ask what sort of proposal would get a better score.
I’ll lay out one possibility today.
Let’s be clear: this is about federal education policy, which has long been a tricky area. The federal government in the NCLB era (which includes the current administration) has asked the states to do a lot, and often in unprecedented detail. One option would be to shrink federal interventionism to pre-NCLB levels. For the sake of debate, however, I’d like to explore a few components of an active federal education policy that would better meet the criteria I applied to the real proposals.
A massive expansion of federal education funding
If the federal government is going to play a major role in education, it must do more to fund the system. This means no more single digit percentages of state education budgets. It means a federal education budget an order of magnitude bigger than the $70 billion the U.S. Department of Education disburses right now. It means a willingness to put money into training, program development, research, school improvement and direct classroom support.
Mandate principles, not specifics
Federal education proposals in the NCLB era under both the Bush and Obama administrations have supported particular policy ideas: evaluating schools and teachers based on test scores, expanding charter schools (or “school choice” more broadly), creating “high” standards, etc.
One difficulty with creating federal education policy this way is that specific policies aimed at one set of schools end up hurting a different set of schools. For example, Adequate Yearly Progress requirements were designed to pressure low-scoring school districts into producing better results; however, they ended up labeling high-scoring districts as failures for not being able to move test scores from excellent to even more excellent.
Another difficulty here is that, sometimes, these policies just don’t work. Witness New York City’s abandonment of so-called “performance pay” after the RAND Corporation concluded that linking teacher incentives to test scores didn’t do anything to improve academic performance.
Rather than getting so prescriptive, federal policy could define certain principles that must be maintained in all state school systems. These principles would underlie many of the current specific proposals, but they would give states room to change course when a particular approach proved not to work.
This list of principles could include the following:
- Innovation in school design and programming
- Professionalism in the treatment of teachers
- Equity of school quality
- Inclusion of major stakeholders in education
- Robustness in measurement of outcomes
Respect the states
The major tension in expanding the federal role in education is between uniformity of expectations and flexibility of local implementation. NCLB failed noticeably here, mandating the AYP process but leaving determination of “proficiency” standards up to the states. The result has been a hodgepodge of state testing systems reporting wildly divergent proficiency levels. Minnesota has generally used local control to produce good results. Mississippi, on the other hand, has struggled.
To cultivate consistent expectations while respecting state flexibility, the federal government could train teams of state liaisons in the core principles of the new education policy. After consistency in broad expectations has been defined, the liaison teams would be dispatched to their states—where they would live for the duration of their service —to coordinate state level policy. Their role would be to enable the creation of specific policies by existing state and local policymakers while ensuring the federally mandated principles were observed.
Take a wide view
Finally, federal education policy—and in particular the principles it identified and the policies its representatives would shape in the states—must look beyond the traditional K-12 classroom. Early childhood education, the effects of poverty on students, and other major issues related to student success would all be in the purview of an effective policy framework. There are too many outside effects to place all the weight of responsibility on the classroom teacher.
Obviously, this could never happen in our political climate. There isn’t nearly enough support for spending generally, much less the massive expansion I’ve laid out here, for this proposal to stand a chance on Capitol Hill. Even with a commitment to state-level flexibility, there would be massive complaints about such an expansion of federal power, and no one in Washington wants to sign up for that fight.
No, the kind of federal intervention that might work in education is a political nonstarter. In the meantime, we’re left with the damaging, unfunded half-measures of the NCLB era. It’s time to start asking whether this is the role we want the federal government to play in Minnesota’s schools.